Posted: 30th January 2008 by kenny in Habari: African Insights

NAIROBI, February 2, 2006

By Kenny Mann

Stepping out of Nairobi airport at 5am on Saturday, January 28, 2006, everything feels at once entirely familiar and entirely strange.It’s pleasantly cool and to the west, a narrow band of fiery red light marks the curved horizon, a rising sun well guarded by a crystal clear sickle moon and a blazing North Star in a flawless night sky.We’re in my sister’s old Susuki jeep, rattling down the Mombasa Road, where childhood memory recalls always stopping to let huge herds of zebra pass by – then on to Uhuru Highway, past all the ugly cement block buildings of the Industrial Area, by-passing the city center and all the way past the comfortable old suburb of Westlands – now its own small city – and onward to the bucolic green estates of Kitisuru.

My sister has been driving since 4am and never drives alone at night. Her Samburu guard Silvano sits silently in the back of the jeep – she’s brought him along as extra security and he carries his long spear, which sticks out of the back window, and a bunduki – or wooden club. “Just in case,” she says. Arriving finally at her house, we have to honk twice at the padlocked iron gate. Siakoi, the Samburu night watchman, sleepily opens it, while Cesar, my sister’s guard dog who never barks, noses curiously around. She parks the car in front of her house, and spends a good five minutes unlocking the heavy double padlocks on her front door before we can get in. A few feet away, in a cottage of her own, our 88-year-old mother sleeps soundly, similarly barricaded against the outside world.

A year ago, robbers broke into my sister’s bedroom and threatened her with knives and guns.They took her computer, TV set and cameras before rushing out of the front gate, where the night watchman stood helplessly.She called Securitex, the local police force, but they loitered outside the gate, unarmed and too afraid to confront the gang of thieves.Probably, everyone agrees, they were accomplices in the crime.Now my sister has installed a thick steel door to her bedroom, double iron grids on her windows, a secret escape hatch and two extra armed watchmen for 24-hour security.But she is traumatized – afraid to go anywhere alone, saddened at the loss of the great freedom that always epitomized our life in Kenya.

Just a few days ago, our old friend Joan Root was murdered in her Naivasha home. She was an avid conservationist who fought constantly against the government-sponsored introduction into Lake Naivasha of Nile Perch – a species that rapidly took over the habitat, destroying the natural environment of the indigenous Tilapia – long a stable food supply for local people. In addition, newcomers had been dragging finely sewn nets through the lake, thus removing precious algae and other links in the vital food chain. Rumor has it that the murder was ordered from “high up” – heads nod, people shrug their shoulders. Kenya is number one on the list of the most corrupt countries in the world. A friend of my sister’s claims to have personally known twelve people who have been murdered here over the past 20 years. I know two of them. My sister knows six. One of them was a young English girl living on the Laikipia plains, north of Mount Kenya. The government never launched an investigation, but her wealthy father hired an expert British detective who, after ten years of investigation, has still been unable to discover the culprits.

On my first day in Nairobi, there is no running water in the house. The drought has continued for months, and while December and January are traditionally the hottest months of the year, the dry season began long before it was due. Nomads have driven their huge herds of livestock down from the northern semi-desert onto the slopes of Mount Kenya to find water and grazing. Their huge encampments cause conflict with the local Kikuyu, who have their many shambas, or vegetable gardens, carefully planted on this fertile soul. The nomads are used to the harsh desert climes near Lake Turkana and the Somalia border; but at seven or nine thousand feet altitude on Mount Kenya, they are freezing and starving to death. Government-ordered logging projects have denuded the mountain slopes of its rich forests. With them have gone the mountain leopard, the elephant, buffalo, monkeys, many antelope species and smaller creatures that inhabited the forests. When it does rain, there is no longer anything left to hold down the soil, and terrifying mud slides plunge down to the villages below, swallowing the flimsy huts without leaving a trace.

On Peponi Road, leading to my sister’s house, she points out two empty mansions that seem to have been partly demolished.Weeds and thorn bushes straggle over therubble of their once-handsome facades. Apparently, they had belonged to government officials who had not received permits to build them on what was supposed to be land set aside for a ring road around Nairobi – one of newly elected President Moi Kibake’splans to improve traffic congestion in the capitol city.Two years later, the houses are still there, the road has never been built and Kibake’s early promises of true democracy and progress have vanished in a smoke-screen of corruption.

All of this I absorb within the first few hours. Everything is different. Yet everything is the same. My sister’s garden is a riot of yellow mimosa, deep red hibiscus and purple bougainvillea. In a bush near the veranda, iridescent blue humming birds dart around a feeding tray, their mirrored wings causing the leaves to rustle faintly. A spider over there in the corner, twisting its silken threads methodically around a captured wasp. A rooster crows from a neighbor’s yard. Distant dogs bark. Every now and then a car rattles by on the pitted road in front of the house. African voices chatter from the servants’ quarters in several different languages …Kishuali, Samburu, Kikuyu, English. The morning dove trills its distinctive five-note descending scale at regular intervals. As noon approaches, insects hum in the mid-day heat. Flies. African sounds so familiar that I have to listen hard to really hear them.

I’m rattled from my doze by the jangle of a cell phone.Everyone has cell phones.Frances, the cook, answers in Kikuyu and there follows a long dialogue with his first wife, 100 miles away near Nakuru.Njere, the second wife and my mother’s maid, slaps around her dust-cloth in irritation.Frances giggles nervously.Another harsh cell phone melody jars my reverie.This time it’s for Esther, my mother’s day nurse.A 31-year-old single mother, she tells me that her child’s father is “like all Kenya men.”“They are useless,” she says.“They do not want a commitment, or any responsibility.If you have a job, a house, a car – then maybe you can find a man who will live with you if you take care of him.Otherwise, forget it.It is better to live alone or with a girlfriend.All Kenya women feel this.We are a nation of single mothers and useless men.” Esther desperately wants to go to nursing school for proper training, but the government will not allow her to register for school because she received poor grades 12 years ago when her father went bankrupt and could not pay school fees, forcing Esther to miss months of classes and do poorly in the final exams.There is no second chance for her in Kenya.

There is no second chance for anyone in Kenya today.Disappointment, anger, hopelessness…this is the prevalent mood.

Everything seems the same.The roads are so familiar, I fall into driving on the left side without a second thought, find my way around with no difficulty at all.There is Muthaiga Club, proud bastion of Colonial power.We take Mama there for Sunday lunch – a rich buffet of cold salmon and various salads, English deserts like trifle, brandy snaps, strawberries and cream.The elegant dining room is filled with mostly middle-aged white people with a sprinkling of African and Asian families.We are served by slim African waiters.At the swimming pool, we laze on the same wooden chaise lounges that were there when I was 16, but now children of all ages and races frolic in the pool.I hear mostly British-Kenya accents.A baby boy crawls away from his family encampment on the lawn. “Toby?” his mother calls.“Are you leaving home?”He stops to consider, then crawls back.

Everything is the same. I am a stranger here, yet I speak Kishuaeli and know my way around. I know no one, yet I know everyone. I see the same ex-patriot faces in the Nenaki Café where we sit under large umbrellas and sip our mango smoothies. Thirty years ago, they sipped coffee at the Thorn Tree Café. They are young, enthusiastic, thrilled to be doing good works in Africa. I see the same multi-national faces at an art opening that were common here before I left in 1968. Nairobi has always been cosmopolitan, the headquarters for most of the United Nations offices in Africa, head offices for most foreign correspondents in Africa, headquarters for many Africa-oriented non-governmental organizations. People love to live in Kenya. You can have a good life in Kenya if you are paid a salary by a foreign organization. You can have a lovely old colonial house with servants. Spend Sunday at the club, take your kids for a swim, drive out into the bush. It is magnificent – without parallel. It is fun. It is exciting. It is always the same.

Everything is different. I marvel at the sophisticated, locally produced TV commercials. I sigh at the huge commercial billboards all along Uhuru Highway. The Sarit Center at Westlands is only one of several enormous shopping malls, offering everything from books, clothes and groceries to computers and Kenya curios. The Speed Surf Internet Café on the third floor is jammed at all hours with Africans, Americans, Europeans, Indians – everyone frustrated with the slow dial-up service available in most residential areas that forces us to use the Internet cafes that somehow, miraculously, offer fast cable or wireless connections. You have to get your email checked before the next power cut. It’s a government plot. It has to be. Everything is.

Today, a young Maasai journalist and a photographer have arrived to interview our 88-year-old mother, who worked for the government Department of Town Planning for almost 30 years. He is writing an article about the history of Nairobi. After half an hour, in which Mama relates her by-now-totally familiar-to-me escape story from Bucharest in 1940, they finally get to ask the questions they have come to ask: what was the vision of the British planners in the late 1940s when they set about building Nairobi, the capitol city, on what had been a swamp in the middle of a flat plain swarming with wildlife and inhabited by the Maasai? I sense at once that they want Mama to give details about how the British used race to demark the city residential areas. Over here to the north, where the land was forested, cooler and more fertile, would be the lush dwellings of the wealthy whites, with their fabulous gardens, lily-ponds, and many servants dressed in long white kaftans or kanzus.Near the city center, housing would be provided for the large Asian population – immigrants from India who had originally come to help build the railway from the coast of Kenya to the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda.And over there, tucked away behind the Industrial Area, would be the shanty towns of the Africans – described as “coolies” on the earliest city maps.

Our Mama, however, will have none of this.She has risen from her bed, dressed, put on make-up and jewelry – the huge emerald ring on her rheumatic index finder, the many ivory and gold bracelets clanging on her wrist, the Arabian silver earrings dragging down her leathery lobes.It is an occasion, and she will rise to it.After all, she must look good for the photographs , and she is still a beautiful woman, sitting carefully near an exquisite portrait of her in her late twenties.

The journalist skirts the issue delicately until finally, I help him out and ask her point blank. She insists, again and again, that planning had nothing to do with race, but was organized from a purely economic point of view. “If you could afford to live in a certain area, then you lived there,” she says. “And if you couldn’t, you didn’t.” “Well,” the journalist points out, “how many Africans could have afforded to live in Muthaiga, or any other white residential area?” “None,” says Mama. “So it comes to the same thing,” he says. “Yes – it does,” she agrees. “But the Africans didn’t mind having smaller plots,” she adds. “They were perfectly happy with what we gave them.”

The interview ends with the journalist asking to come again in a few days’ time to ask “more specific” questions. In the meantime, I have learned that the Maasai – who now number about two million – are agitating to reclaim land to the north of Mount Kenya. They say it is rightfully theirs since they were forcibly removed from it by the British government in order to make way for the English farmer/settlers who poured into Kenya during the boom years of the early twentieth century. Now they want it back, but it is heavily populated by Kikuyu agriculturalists. My sister thinks that a civil war is looming. The Maasai – familiar to tourists as those gorgeous, proud young men who stride the plains naked but for their dashing red cloaks – now hold huge political power. Their leaders do not encourage the tribal way of life, which still persists in many areas of Kenya and Tanzania. To them, their rural brothers are “primitive” and “backward” and the sooner they chop off their long braids and wear suits the better. I would like to ask the Maasai journalist some “specific questions” about this, and I have begun my list.

As I drive around the city, I note all the familiar landmarks. The Equator Club, not far from our former home, where my friend Robin danced balancing on his hands all those years ago. The once pink Delamere Flats – the first apartment complex in town. The circular Hilton Hotel, once the highest building in town, from whose terraces one had an almost unobstructed view of Mount Kilimanjaro, hidden now in smog and suburbs. The blue and green houses of Indian families. The teeming bus station. Everything is the same, yes. But it is also totally different. It smells the same – roasting corn cobs on charcoal braziers; poor quality gas; the roses sold at many corner stands; musty red earth. But there is more of everything. More and more. More ugly concrete buildings; more endless lunar roads, impossible to drive on with sanity; more people on foot and on bikes; more roadside shacks selling cigarettes, matches and gum; more traffic; more dogs; more shit in the street. More poverty. More shopping malls. More wealth. More crime. More and more.

In 1963, when Kenya became independent from Great Britain and was known as the “Green City In The Sun”, the population of Nairobi numbered 350,000.Now four million people crowd the city’s endlessly expanding frontiers.Nairobi feels like a smelly relic of its former self.No green to be seen anywhere.No parks.No attractive roundabouts, carefully planted with palm trees, cacti and bougainvillea.No respite from noise, fumes, traffic.

And yet….and yet….

There is that persistent African energy. You can feel the city’s pulse at all times. Enterprise and entrepreneurship are evident everywhere. You can find just about anything you need in this city – at a price. You can eat at world-class restaurants, or find the best curry in the world for a few cents down near Biashara Street. You can stay at the Norfolk, listed among the world’s top 300 hotels, or down at the River Road Lodge, an African hotel, for less than two dollars a night. You can get anything fixed – Kenyans are master mechanics, skilled at repairing car engines, refrigerators or even computers with string or chewing gum –whatever is available. Kenyans are master crafts people. Everywhere, from the sides of the roads to the more glamorous shops, you see excellent rattan or wooden furniture, gorgeous black or red clay pots, first rate wooden carvings, fabulous cotton cloth in fashionable colors, irresistible basket ware, jewelry, household accessories, ingenious toys made of wire and bottle caps, gaily painted tin trunks, even interesting contemporary sculpture. At the street stalls, and at the huge City Market, there is the widest variety of fruit and vegetables I have ever seen anywhere in the world. You can get your posh leather handbag exactly copied for one-tenth its price. You can get your shoes repaired to look like new.

You can wonder who has the money to buy all this stuff.

You could give your shoes away to any one of the countless children begging in the streets.

And yet….and yet….

I meet Philip M., a 27-year-old film editor who charges American day rates and has worked on several Hollywood films, including “The Constant Gardener”, that were not only shot in Kenya, but edited and finished here.Philip is intelligent, educated, reliable, cute, responsible, and supportstwo orphaned nephews through school. My sister had tried to introduce him to sweet Esther, but Philip does not want a girl friend or wife – yet.“This is Kenya,” he says.“This is my time of life to work and earn money.I don’t want to be distracted.I don’t want to go out.I am lucky, and I will never leave Kenya.Who knows what the future might bring?All men my age feel the same way.If we are lucky enough to have a job and some income, we are focusing on that only.We will build a new Kenya.Somehow.”